The Heavens Asunder
In the sky over Oerba, Caius watched Fang fall. For a moment, only one, he allowed himself to feel regret. Fang was one of the few gods he could respect. She had watched over her people wisely and well, and she had loved them dearly also. But he could not spare her this though he could admire her strength. Even weakened, the High Father was monstrously powerful. To have saved Oerba, albeit at the cost of the eastern wall, was no small feat. He was not sure if he could have done the same.
The air beside him stirred, and the High Father appeared. He was an old man again, but Caius could see the madness swirling behind his eyes. How had so many of the gods missed it for so long? Chaos crawled through the High Father's soul, but where it would have been beautiful in a mortal, it could only ever be ugly and foul inside a god. The High Father was a fool, much like the High Mother. But Caius needed him, just like he needed Caius.
"You have grown weaker," Caius said. "More than I had expected."
For a heartbeat, the High Father looked frail, his weathered features tight and strained. "Hold your tongue, boy. I have slept long, and, yes, the years have weakened me. But I grow stronger with each moment. Once Cocoon worships me again, I will be as I was." His lips curled, and he looked down at the city beneath them. "The Fang of the Heavens has grown stronger. I did not expect her to survive. Kill her, Caius, and lay waste the city. The sight of it displeases me."
Caius did not bother to face the High Father as he gave his reply. "No."
"Are you defying me?" Reality rippled as the High Fathered gathered his might again. Even weakened, his power dwarfed Caius's as a forest fire dwarfed a candle.
"Your slumber has made your restless. You were wiser in the Old Days." Caius gestured at the Cocoon army camped below. "Let Cocoon's army have its hope. Let them pour into Oerba. The clans draw close, and their hearts are filled with wrath. If Cocoon wins the coming battle, if we strike down their enemies, they may worship us for a time. But the hearts of mortals can be fickle. What will happen when they have no more enemies? What need will they have for us then?"
Understanding dawned, and the madness behind the High Father's eyes receded. He laughed, and it was an ugly sound. "You mean to let them fail. I did not think you so ruthless. Yet perhaps I should not be surprised. After all, you have chosen to stand with me, knowing full well what I intend."
"The years have changed me, as they have changed all of us. But when Cocoon's armies lie broken and their cities stand exposed, they shall know fear. They shall know panic. And then they will turn to you, High Father. They shall turn to you for salvation because there is no one else. They prayed to you, and you gave them the walls of Oerba. Think of how ardent their prayers shall be when they pray not for victory but survival. If you save them then, they shall never be parted from you. They shall be yours forever. Then, and only then, shall you have the strength to restore Cocoon."
The High Father's gaze fell upon Caius with all the weight of a mountain. Oblivion shone in his eyes, vast and endless. "You see far, Caius, and well. Perhaps too far and too well." He faded, vanishing into the night. "I see your heart, Caius. You have no love for me, no loyalty. Yet I know what you seek. Do not betray me, or you shall never have it. I leave this matter to you. Do not disappoint me."
Caius said nothing. He saw far, farther than even the High Mother had. He knew the treachery that awaited him at the High Father's hands, but he would be ready for it. Fang had been wounded. She would play no further part for the time being. But when he needed her, she would help him. She would not have a choice. Below him, the army of Cocoon advanced as a lone dragon raced through the sky toward the breach in the walls.
And in the distance, he heard the rumble of a gathering storm. Aerith had stirred, and Lightning was with her. Her choice had decided everything before, and it would do so again. But he would leave her with only one choice, a choice he had already made. He closed his eyes, felt the tides of fate ebb and flow against him, and then he too was gone. He had something even more important to attend to.
X X X
Caius spent the rest of the night speaking to the leaders of Paddra. They were mortals, but they were competent and their loyalty was absolute. They would die for him without a second though, and more importantly they would do the same for Yeul.
Paddra was only a legend to the outside world, the Hidden City some called it. It was a place of his creation, for in the last war, the war that had brought down Cocoon, the original Paddra had been completely destroyed. Its people were left homeless and broken, leaderless and despised. He had taken them in, sheltered them, and then used his divine powers to carve out a new city.
It had nothing to do with charity. The city and its people served him and his ends. His powers shielded the city from the prying eyes of mortal and even other gods. He had turned the city and the valley where it was hidden into a place of prosperity and beauty, a place fitting for his beloved. And each time Yeul was reborn, he brought her here, to the palace of Paddra, where she could live her days in comfort and safety, protected from all that would do her harm. No one questioned her position. He had burned her importance, her right to rule, into the very souls of Paddra's people.
Finally, after a night spent discussing matters of state – mortals had so many needs to attend to – he was free to indulge himself. The guards stationed near Yeul's quarters snapped to attention at his approach. He examined them keenly. They were expert swordsmen, the finest warriors in all of Paddra, and each had been raised to attend to this duty with fanatical devotion. He favoured them with a curt nod as he passed, and they straightened in appreciation. His nature was well known, and such a nod was equivalent to words of high praise. They would walk proudly for days and speak of it with their fellows.
Beyond the guards was the lush garden that surrounded Yeul's luxurious quarters. She had always loved flowers, and so he had made sure to bring only the most beautiful to her garden. He used his powers to ensure they never wilted and were always in full bloom. It was a petty thing, perhaps, but he cared more for her than for the censure he would have received from gods long dead. Some part of him knew and understood that he was obsessed, but all gods were obsessed with something. And she loved him. Despite everything he was, she loved him as much as he loved her. His precious Yeul was the only thing he considered beautiful in a life filled with so much ugliness.
His approach was marked by several of Yeul's handmaidens – each was trained in combat lest some enemy slip past her guards – and he dismissed them with a wave of his hand. They bowed and slipped away without a word. His time with Yeul was too precious to share with anyone else. As the last of them left, she showed him the breakfast they had prepared.
Few gods would ever lower themselves to serve a mortal a meal – Lightning had done so for her sister, and Fang often shared meals with her chosen – but Caius had no qualms serving his beloved. He took the tray of food and carried it into Yeul's bedroom, mindful of the tiger that trailed in his wake. It was a present for Yeul and yet another protector should the need arise. The beast followed him to Yeul's door and then went off to sleep in the garden. Yeul had seen a picture of a tiger once and delighted in it, so Caius had brought her a cub to raise as her own.
Yeul was asleep on her bed, curled up to one of her pillows. She was adorable like this, hair askew and mouth slightly open. She was only a youth still, a mere sixteen, but she had already begun to show much of the beauty she would one day possess. Caius allowed himself a moment, and then another, to admire her before he set the tray of food on a nearby table and sat on the edge of the bed.
Gently, he cupped her cheek in one hand. "Yeul, it is morning. I have breakfast."
She awoke at once. Seeing him, she jerked back, face flushed as she tugged her blankets up to her neck. "Caius!" she cried before she swatted him with one hand like an unruly child. "I have told you before! Do not do that!"
He chuckled. It was amusing to see her so exasperated. As of late, she'd become exceedingly modest, but she was hardly naked. She always slept in a nightgown, though somehow it did more to hint at the womanly figure she had recently gained than it did to conceal it. However, she had always been a modest creature – it had been so in every life she had lived. Only later, once they had become lovers, would she allow him to take liberties with her, for their passion had always burned hot once it had awakened.
But she was still so very young, and she had reached that awkward stage when she both craved his attention yet seemed uncertain of what she would do once she received it. Had she been any other mortal girl, she might have dallied with a young man, stealing kisses behind a barn or some such. But he was hers, and whatever kisses she stole would be from his lips. He smiled. There would be no need for stolen kisses. When she was ready, he would teach her everything she wanted to know.
Yet now, with her scowling most firmly at him, he had no choice but to turn away as she dressed herself. She was not truly angry with him, merely startled, but he was happy to let her think she had won a battle or two. He would, after all, win the war. In the meantime, he busied himself with her breakfast.
"From the look upon your face, I take it you are displeased to see me."
"Of course not!" Yeul huffed, and he could all but see the frown upon her face. "I am always happy to see you, Caius, you know that. But… you are late."
He did not need to turn to know that she was pouting. It was a habit of hers, one that seemed specific to this lifetime. He found it intriguing and delightful. Perhaps when she was ready, he could deal with that jutting lower lip in the way his heart demanded – with his own lips. "My apologies for missing dinner. I had other duties to see to, but they are done now. If you like, I can spend the whole day with you."
Fully dressed now, she threw her arms about him from behind. "Truly?"
Her face rested upon his shoulder. All he need do was turn his head and they would kiss. Yet he did not. She was not ready for that, though the warmth of her body burned him each time they touched. He was lost, had been lost for so long, and only with Yeul did he feel found. "Yes, truly." He eased out of her embrace and offered her breakfast. "See here, I even made you a meal."
Even as she reached for the food, the look she gave him was sceptical. "You did not make this, Caius. I know you very well. God or not, you cannot cook."
He inclined his head. She was right, of course. For all his talents – divinely given or won through hard practice – cooking was not one of them. On Cocoon, he had always had others to serve him, and in Paddra, there was a veritable army of servants on hand. "As always, you see through my clever schemes."
"It was hardly clever." She grinned. "Though I appreciate the effort."
She ate with relish, and at her insistence he ate as well though he was mindful not to eat too much. She was mortal and needed nourishment. He was a god, and food was not something he required. Indeed, he found it far more enjoyable to watch her savour each dish, especially when she stumbled over her descriptions of how each one tasted. She had a thirst for knowledge, but at times, the proper words eluded her. It was an endearing trait, and another that seemed unique to this lifetime. He supposed it was because of how late he had been to find her. She had been six years old and living in some pathetic backwater when he'd finally found her. He was only glad that she could scarcely remember the squalid, little house with its cracked, mouldy walls and mangy dogs. So long as he lived, he would never let her experience such hardship again.
When she was done, she shooed him from her quarters as her handmaidens came to help her bathe and dress for the day. Caius contented himself with wandering the garden, the tiger slinking after him. He appreciated the beast's form: sleek, deadly, and proud. Yeul was his one indulgence, the sole arena where he let his heart over rule his head. Not even the High Father knew where Paddra was. In time, he would grow strong enough to force that information from Caius, but Caius had plans for when that moment came.
When she emerged from her chambers. Yeul wore a long, white dress. The intricate but light crown she wore upon her head glittered in the sun. A thin cloak was wrapped about her, lest the wind give her a chill. She tried to sneak up on him, and he let her think she had as she wrapped her arms around him.
"You are thinking very hard again."
"I do so quite frequently." Caius offered his arm, and she took it happily. Only a few had ever had the audacity to touch him outside of combat, and there were fewer still whose touch he craved. She was one. "What do you wish to do today?"
"There is a market, and I am told there are food stalls with all the most delightful things. May we go?"
"If that is your wish."
As they walked, she spoke swiftly and eagerly of all the things she had done in his absence. She took to her lessons quickly and excelled in all of her studies. The thought of taking on a larger role in the governance of Paddra thrilled her. And why not? She was Yeul, Voice of the High Mother, and the most exalted of all the High Mother's prophets and priestesses. Yet, as always, her talk to turned to other, less pleasant things.
"Must I always stay here, Caius? I know you leave Paddra. I wish to see the world. Bring me with you. Show me everything."
It was hard to deny her even a single thing, but he would always deny her this.
"The world outside of Paddra is a cruel and dangerous place. Its people are ruthless and cunning, and the fate they must endure is even worse." His voice softened at the hurt she showed, and he reached down to lift her chin. "I promise you, I do not keep you here on a whim. I wish only for what is best for you."
"I know that." Yeul's voice grew small, and something within him clenched.
"But I promise that once my work is done, you shall come with me. I am working to make the world a better place. In time, you shall be able to go anywhere you wish, even far away from me, if that is what you desire." Indeed, she likely would desire that once she learned what he had done.
Yeul only laughed and hugged his arm. "Why would I ever want to leave you? When I can travel, you must take me everywhere. Perhaps you will be less gloomy then. How about the sea, Caius? I have never seen the sea!"
"Perhaps, and the sea is very beautiful." The thought of Yeul staying at his side, of a life beyond the war to come, was almost too much to bear. But the next words of his reply died on his lips, for Yeul's eyes had glazed and chaos swirled behind them. A voice that was not hers came from her mouth, the shadow of a slumbering god. The High Mother's gift still lingered, and now and then her will revealed itself.
"Be mindful of the past, Caius." Yeul's eyes burned into his, and her voice seemed to come from every direction at once. "It often finds its way into the future. There are some things that must not be changed, some prices that are too heavy to pay. Not even the gods can conquer fate. Not even you can sway the chaos and control destiny."
His fists clenched, and he could not stop the words spilling out of him, words meant for the High Mother. "You are a fool. What would you know? You never even tried."
"Do you think the High Father and I were the first? Foolish little god, mightier forces than we forged creation. You set yourself against them, and you are destined to fail. The fate of man has been decided, and the course of the divine has been wrought in stone since the first day of creation."
"Save your platitudes. What allegiance do I owe a slumbering god and another, perhaps greater, who has forsaken all of creation? You and the High Father were mighty once, but your arrogance and pride led to your ruin. I shall not make the same mistake. And you dare speak of the price? I am more than willing to pay it."
"Lightning stood once where you stand now. Tell me, Caius. What did she decide?"
"Be silent." Caius had to fight from seizing Yeul in his hands and shaking her. This was not her doing. "Go back to the darkness and your slumber. This world has no need of you." His gaze darkened, and his voice took on a fell tone. "I shall change everything. The greatest of gods lies dead and their power is there for the taking. I shall remake this world as I see fit."
"Then you shall fall."
And then Yeul was herself again.
Yeul's eyes widened at the wrath upon his face. "Caius, did I say something strange again?" That was how she referred to the moments when the High Mother spoke through her. What an innocent way of putting it. He strove to soften his expression, and she shivered and clutched her cloak tighter about herself. "I dreamt of something… something I've dreamt of before. It was a crystal star shining in the sky where you once lived. I dreamt that you came to see me many times. Sometimes I was old, and sometimes I was young, but you were always the same. So many times you wept… always for me."
Caius swallowed thickly. "Those were only dreams, beloved, or perhaps nightmares. I am here with you now, and I do not weep. Come. Let us go to the market. If we dally, perhaps we shall find ourselves left hungry."
She laughed. "Caius! Do not say such things. What will you do if there really is nothing left? We shall starve, and it will all be your fault."
X X X
Upon the ruins of Oerba's eastern wall, the city's defenders fought a desperate battle. Heedless of the darkness, men and women rushed to plug the gap with blades and bodies. Cocoon's soldiers surged forward, and the night was filled with the clamour of steel and fury. But if they had expected to see the morale of Oerba broken, they were sorely mistaken. For the warriors of Oerba no longer fought simply to protect their city – they fought to protect their goddess as well.
"Take her to the temple!" The cry came from Braska, High Priest of Oerba. The mere thought of actually laying hands upon a goddess horrified him, but they could not leave her here. "Quickly, we will cover your retreat!"
A chorus of cries went up from the warriors around him. They had seen their goddess fall in their defence, and they had come swiftly to aid her as best they could. Fear would come, he was certain of it, but for now their fury was stronger than their fear.
"Into your positions!" he bellowed. "Let no enemy lay their hands upon our goddess!"
As another wave of Cocoon soldiers pressed into the gap, Braska led the charge to drive them back. His ornate staff flashed in the moonlight, a standard around which to rally. Then came the fighting, and it was horrible fighting. They fought on top of the rubble and cracked rock, amidst scorched stone and melted brick. Men swung wildly at one another, barely able to see as a cloud covered the moon. When swords or spears failed, rocks and bits of rubble were seized and brought to bear. Soon, the gold of Braska's staff was stained a deep and terrible red.
"Push!" Braska shouted as he crested another pile of rubble. "Tear this down!"
Arrows hurtled through the air. One struck the man beside him, and a second arrow dug into his shoulder. He tripped but found his feet again, and then he braced his shoulder against one of the slabs of battered stone that sat stop the pile of rubble. A dozen warriors joined him, heaving and straining, until at last the slab slid free and rumbled down the hill. It kicked up a cloud of dust and crushed everything in its path.
"Have faith!" Braska held his staff high to let the warriors around him know that he still remained upon the field of battle. "The goddess protected us! Now, we must protect her!"
He had seen the horror in the sky – a titan wrought of metal with a thousand screaming faces – they all had. And they all knew who it was. The High Father had come and set his strength against them. But their goddess had withstood his fury, and while a wall had been lost, the city still remained. The High Father had withdrawn, so there was still hope. Besides, what else could they do but fight? Cocoon would give no quarter.
And then, from the sky, came fire. It was small at first, but it grew larger, and Braska knew then that the goddess had not abandoned them. A dragon had come, small perhaps, but atop its back, their features lit by the flames, were two young women, one with red hair and the other with silver hair. He had heard from the leader of the Yun – the one with red hair was their goddess's chosen, a young Dia from Oerba. Their allies could not be far.
"Hold!" Braska despised killing. But for his family and his city and his goddess, he would kill as many as he had to. "Hold until morning!"
Further back, carried on a wooden bier that jolted with every step as a pair of her priests took her back to the temple, the goddess Fang slept and remembered the Old Days.
X X X
The death of Averia had broken something in Lightning. Fang knew that as surely as she knew her own name. Yet the breaking did not happen in the fashion so many were accustomed to. No tears were shed once Averia's funeral pyre had dwindled to ash and embers. No words of hate or sorrow or rage tainted the air. There was only a wretched silence and a sense of purpose so keen that it frightened Fang.
Lightning had decided upon something, but Fang could not be sure of what it was. Nor would Lightning speak of her decision. Instead, the other goddess dwelt in solitude upon the Thunder Plains. Several times, Fang visited, but no word or touch could crack the ice around Lightning's heart. The most heartfelt of pleas was met only with formality and politeness so artificial that Fang would have rather be struck than greeted in such a fashion. The passion that had burned in Lightning for so long – the regal flame that set apart her soul from all the other gods – had burnt down to nothing. In its place, there was only grief and wrath.
As if to give voice to their creator's suffering, the storms upon the Thunder Plains grew ever more vicious with each passing year. No mortal dared walk beneath the sea of black clouds, and no god dared disturb the shattered Sword of the Heavens. Even the wind, whispering of Fang's sympathy, could not reach Lightning.
Gods were not mortals, yet their hearts were not so different. Some gods fell prey to their desires, drowning themselves in the pleasures of the flesh and other such delights. Others gave way to grief, fading from the world as shadows before the dawn. But others burned, and sometimes they burned so hot inside that when the fire was gone, there was nothing left behind.
Lightning returned to her duty. Indeed, she performed it even better than before. Those who broke the laws of Cocoon were punished without hesitation or mercy until her name was almost a curse on the lips of errant gods. No lawbreaker ever escaped her justice, and no plea ever stayed her sword. But what frightened Fang the most was the emptiness she saw inside Lightning. There was none of the regret she had seen before when Lightning had consigned other gods to oblivion. Nor did the other goddess bother to conceal the nature of her duty any longer. Instead, she strode uncaring through the halls of Cocoon, her armour and blade stained with divine blood. The High Mother was well pleased – her greatest servant had returned to her duties – but Fang knew better than to take joy in Lightning's dedication. She had seen this once before and it had broken her heart then. Lightning had returned to her duty because she had nothing else.
Her fears were confirmed when the High Mother called Lightning before her. The Blade of the High Mother had slain – nay, slaughtered – half a dozen rebellious gods, executing them with a cold brutality that had sent shockwaves through Cocoon. None would dare question the laws of Cocoon now.
"You have done your duty, my daughter, and you have done it well." The High Mother held court in her palace, and beside the finery the other gods wore, the bloodied armour of Lightning was a sight to behold. "I know you have grieved, and you are right to grieve. Your loss has been great. But let me now reward you. Only ask it of me, and I shall grant you a boon."
Lightning stood, for she had knelt as custom demanded. Then her eyes swept over the other gods. For a moment, Fang met Lightning's gaze. Those blue eyes of which Fang had always been so fond were twin oceans of cold fire. A storm crackled in those eyes, but just as quickly it was gone. No, not gone. Restrained. Fang remembered then the words a master sword smith had once spoken to her:
A sword once broken can be reforged, but it will never be the same again.
"A boon, High Mother?" Lightning's voice was soft, yet to Fang, the threat was clear in it.
But the High Mother merely smiled. "Yes, a boon."
"There are many things I could ask for." Lightning's hand fell to the sword at her side, and her grip was so tight upon it that her fingers grew white. "And indeed, there are many things you could give me. But the one thing in all this world that I desire is not something you can give me – or perhaps it is something you will not give me."
The High Mother flinched as though struck, and a low murmur rustled through the other gods. Fang shivered as the High Mother's power unfurled. The words had not been spoken loudly, yet that had only added to the insult. "You do me a disservice, daughter."
"If I have done so, it is not out of malice. Instead, I speak merely the truth. What I want, no god can give me, not even you, High Mother, most exalted of us all. Thus I shall ask no boon of you. Let me return to my duty, for it is all that is left to me." And with those words, cutting in their truth, Lightning departed.
But while the other gods remained with the High Mother, Fang sought out Lightning. She caught the other goddess by the arm, but the crackle of electricity forced her back. The sword that had slain so many errant gods had been drawn.
"I did not give you leave to touch me, Fang of the Heavens."
And though that was Fang's full name and title, it stung her more deeply than any insult to hear them pass from Lightning's lips with so little warmth.
"What has happened to you?" And because Fang loved Lightning and would not see her suffer as she had before, she put one hand upon Lightning's and pressed her blade back into its sheath. They would talk, and Fang would offer what meagre comfort she could.
"You know what has happened. I have lost the only thing I treasured, my one reward for centuries of toil. If your Yun had been put to fire and sword, how would you feel?"
Fang shook. This was her doing, if only by mistake. Lightning had not truly loved until she had known Serah, but then, she had not truly lost until then either. "Your words to the High Mother were spoken truly – of that I have no doubt – yet you crafted them to hurt and that is not like you."
For the first time, emotion filled Lightning's voice, and it was wrath. "It is right that she should suffer at least a little, for we have all suffered while she sits upon a gilded throne aloof from a world of suffering and pain. The mortals pray to us for relief, and we draw strength from them. Yet where is their relief? Where is the succour we have promised them?"
"They may pray to us, but in the end they decide their own fate. It has always been so."
"Then perhaps it has always been wrong." Lightning made to brush past Fang, but again Fang caught her by the arm. "I have spoken to the High Father, Fang. He does not feel as you do, as the High Mother does. He shall make the world better."
"Then he has lied to you. There are things that cannot be changed. The tide of fate and destiny is too strong for even the gods to push back. A mortal might as well try to hold back the sea. And even if he can do it, what shall be the cost, Lightning?"
"I am willing to pay the cost."
Lightning lifted her hand, but Fang knew they could not part like this. Somehow, the High Father had come upon Lightning in her moment of weakness and poisoned her against the High Mother. She pulled Lightning's hand down and seized Lightning by the shoulder.
"Choose, Fang. A reckoning is coming, and I tell you this only because you were once dear to me and may be still. Shall you stand in defence of idle gods unworthy of their glory, or shall you help raise up those mortals worthy of a place amongst the gods?"
"If those are the only choices that you give me…"
"Then you have already chosen." Lightning pushed Fang away, and though only two feet stood between them, Fang could not bring herself to close the distance.
Then Lightning was gone. But her words lingered for a long time afterward in Fang's mind. Lightning had chosen, and it was a dire choice. Two weeks later, the High Mother summoned Fang to her chambers. She arrived to find the greatest of goddesses in the midst of a rage, and she was torn between marvelling at it – she had never seen the High Mother so furious – and dreading news of its cause.
"Have you heard?" the High Mother spat. Her fury shook Cocoon to its foundations, and the lesser gods amongst them sought refuge outside the hall. Only Fang and Lightning stood firm. The latter's mouth was set into a thin line, and her eyes gleamed with all the hardness of a diamond. "The High Father means to bring mortals to Cocoon."
Fang recalled Lightning's words, and a chill ran through her soul. She should speak now and tell the High Mother what Lightning had said, yet she could not bring herself to wound Lightning yet again. "For what purpose?" she said at last.
"He believes that the most deserving of mortals should be rewarded." The High Mother sank onto her throne, and the air about her bent and twisted. From the shadows another god emerged: Caius, a great god in his own right and the favoured son of the High Mother. "It is a fine idea, I suppose, but Cocoon is the home of the gods. I have spoken to him, but he will not be swayed. Cocoon was not meant for mortals, however noble they might be."
"He means to force the issue?" Fang asked.
"He has that right. He is the High Father, and we rule Cocoon together. Half of it is mine, and half of it is his. It has always been so. Yet gods and mortals were not meant to mix." Here, her gaze found Lightning. "For such mixing can only lead to sorrow. Perhaps the High Father grows weary. Perhaps he has spent too much time wandering amongst the mortals. Maybe he seeks a way to pass the endless years."
"Then maybe we can dissuade him." Caius stepped out into the open. "Or maybe you can tolerate his mortals for a while until he grows tired of them."
"No." The High Mother banged one hand upon her throne. "Cocoon is the home of the gods. I have thought of quarrelling with him, but not over a matter like this."
Fang had never seen the High Mother and High Father quarrel. If such a quarrel came to blows, it might tear Cocoon from the sky and lay waste all of Gran Pulse.
"A vote," Lightning spoke at last. "It is written in the laws that although you, High Mother, and the High Father stand above all others, in matters where you cannot reach agreement, a vote may be called amongst the other gods."
"A vote? Yes. Yes, the High Father has spent too much of his time wandering the mortal world. He has forgotten Cocoon and the gods upon it. I shall win the vote, I think." The High Mother's eyes sharpened upon Lightning, for she remembered well the insult Lightning had given her. "And how will you vote, my daughter?"
"I will vote as my duty demands."
"Then you will vote for me. Fang, what think you of this idea?"
"It is a poor one." Fang did not wish to betray Lightning's confidence, yet she could not stand idly by either. "Perhaps you could convince the High Father to make a new realm for the worthy."
But despite her efforts, the High Mother would not be swayed. And each time she thought to tell the High Mother of what Lightning had said to her, Fang saw again the hurt in Lightning's eyes, the sorrow, and the words turned to ashes in her mouth. Surely, it could not go so poorly. Even with Lightning's vote, the High Father spent too little time upon Cocoon to hold more sway over the other gods than the High Mother.
Still, if the High Father had reached Lightning's heart, he might have reached others. Fang waited for Lightning and Caius to leave before she revealed her suspicions. She would not speak of Lightning's exact words, but she could at least speak of her intentions.
"Lightning will not vote for you."
"Nonsense." The High Mother shook her head. "She is angry with me, but I created her. I know best what lies within her heart. I crafted her for duty, and it is duty still that drives her, that defines her. And here, her duty is clear. She was created to serve me, to enforce the laws of Cocoon, and to defend Cocoon against any threat. She will vote in my favour."
Fang thought hard upon those words. It was true. Each of the gods – save the High Mother and High Father – had been created for a purpose, and to go against that purpose was no small thing. Fang had been created aeons ago to watch over the wild places of the world and the clans of Gran Pulse. She was also sworn to defend the High Mother from her enemies. Even now, despite the poor treatment that Lightning had endured, it was difficult for her to dislike the High Mother, so deeply ingrained was her purpose. Lightning had likewise been crafted to fulfil a purpose, but that purpose was not as simple as the High Mother believed.
"So you say, High Mother, and you are wise. But a god can overcome their purpose if their will is strong enough. Did not Jenova abandon her post and rise against you?" Fang shook her head. "But there is more. The laws of Cocoon can be changed and there may come a time when you are seen as a threat to Cocoon. What shall happen then when two purposes run contrary to one?"
The High Mother stirred again, her eyes narrowed in wrath. Yet Fang held firm in the face of the High Mother's fury. "You have always loved me and been loyal, so I give your words great weight. But Lightning will not betray me. She cannot."
"I hope you are right." Fang bowed her head. In Lightning's eyes perhaps, the High Mother had betrayed her first. Certainly, the High Father would say so. "For if she speaks against you, others shall mark it and follow her lead."
Then Fang went from the High Mother and returned to her mountain. There, she sought comfort amongst the Yun and the dragons, but her unease would not pass. She had heard whispers of doom when Serah chose a mortal path, and she heard them again as the vote drew near.
On the day of the vote, Cocoon was filled with gods and goddesses. Not every god could vote – only those of sufficiently high station. They gathered in a vast hall that stood halfway between the palaces of the High Mother and High Father. Then they spoke, the High Mother first and the High Father second.
"It is true," the High Mother said. "That there are mortals worthy of great things. They have conquered the limitations of their nature and achieved fine deeds. Yet they are mortals still, and the laws of Cocoon are clear. Cocoon is the home of the gods, and there is no room upon it for mortals. Such laws may seem harsh, but they exist for a reason. Gods do not age as mortals do. Any mortal here would be forced to wither and die as all the gods around them remain unchanged. And should any god grow to hold a mortal dear, then only sorrow awaits them. For the years of a mortal life are as chaff in the wind whereas the gods are mountains standing firm. There is talk, I have heard, of fate and destiny. These are more than words – they are laws carved into the fabric of creation. Such things are beyond even the gods, and to meddle with them is not wise. It is the destiny of gods to walk one path and mortals another. Let us not interfere with it now."
Fang felt some relief, for the High Mother had spoken truthfully and with force. Yet as the High Father stood to take his turn, the whispers of doom on the wind grew louder.
At first, the High Father said nothing. Instead, he walked in a slow circuit along the edge of the speaking area, his eyes wandering over the gods that had assembled. Only when he had met and held each of their gazes did he speak. His voice held none of the austere, impossible beauty of the High Mother's, but the words were crafted with a skill surpassing hers, and the roughness, the almost mortal timbre, lent added gravity to his message. The High Mother's strength and power had guaranteed obedience, but the High Father had learned from mortals the value of fine speech and cunning. His wisdom echoed in every word, and the weight of his long years filled the hall.
"We are gods," he began. "And we are blessed with many things. Save for the very cruellest of circumstances, neither age nor death can hinder us. Yet how many amongst us treasure this gift and honour it as it should be honoured? I know – and you know – of many who do not deserve the gift of the divine or the paradise of Cocoon. They are fools of the worst sort, squandering what so many worthy mortals would give anything to possess. Is there justice in that? Is it fair that the accident of their birth – and none of us can choose how we are born – dooms them as surely as it blesses others less deserving? We pride ourselves on our justice and our wisdom. Surely, the answer is: no, there is no justice in that and it is not fair.
"You have all seen the mortal world. You are, after all, the greatest of our number, wise and powerful, experienced and just. There is not a one among you who has not known the depths of mortal depravity. But likewise, there is not one among you who has not seen the glory that mortals can achieve: their ingenuity, their kindness, their honour, and their valour. Yes, they are weak. Yes, they are fragile. But they are remarkable despite that – because of that." And here, the High Father's gaze pinned each and every one of them as though daring them to disagree. "I do not ask any of you to give up what is yours. I ask only that you share what we have with those who have earned it, who deserve it.
"What I ask is simple. Give the mortals something to aspire to. Give them something to believe in. We have promised them paradise. We have descended clothed in fire and glory with whispers of heaven on our lips. But it is a heaven we can never know, for where the souls of mortals go the gods cannot follow. So our promise is an empty one. Yet there is a heaven here that we do know, a paradise we can offer them. Why not give them respite, if only for a while, from the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
"True, we cannot stop their passing, but we might ease their passage. I would have this boon granted to only the greatest amongst them, those truly worthy of our esteem. Let them live out the dwindling of their days upon Cocoon. Let them pass in comfort and joy with those who can truly appreciate their achievements. Let the vagaries of the mortal world trouble them no longer. It will give the mortals something to dream of, and it will remind them that we gods have not forgotten them."
The hall was still as the High Father's last words echoed through the air. Then the vote was called. Fang knew right away how some of them would vote, but of others she was less certain. Back and forth the vote swung, first favouring the High Mother and then favouring the High Father. At last, it was tie, but there was still one vote left to cast. The vote belonged to Lightning, and even as the High Mother's eyes gleamed with triumph, Fang knew that she had lost.
All around the hall, the other gods cried out for Lightning's vote. She seemed weary, so weary, and she let slip the tight rein she held over her heart. Anger and pain warred in her gaze. Then she took her sword and knelt before the High Father.
"You have my vote and my sword. Let the laws of Cocoon be rewritten, and let the tide of fate be thrown back."
At her words, the High Mother let loose a cry of fury that shook the hall to its foundations. Despite Fang's warning, the betrayal has still caught her unawares. She would have struck Lightning, but the High Father's power rose to match hers. The old man faded, and a thousand faces cast in glittering metal shimmered in the air behind him like the hot air over the desert.
"The vote is cast, and the victory is mine." For the first time that day, the High Father's voice was hard. "Let the laws be changed, and let none oppose that change." He lifted Lightning to her feet and put one arm about her shoulders. "You serve one now who appreciates your deeds. You shall not go unrewarded."
The High Mother left before her wrath could overtake her again, and Fang followed to try and calm her. In truth, Fang still could not believe that Lightning had cast her lot with the High Father. Reason might have warned her of the outcome, but her heart could not accept it. The High Mother's rage was terrible to behold. The walls of her palace cracked, and the skies over Cocoon grew dark until the only light came from the flash of lightning. Only when it seemed as though Cocoon itself would break beneath her fury did the High Mother slump upon her throne, tired and weary for the first time that Fang could remember.
Anger cooling, she turned to Fang. "I have lost so much more than a mere vote. The mortals I can bear, but the loss of my sword is an evil thing. You foresaw this. Tell me, Fang of the Heavens, could I have stopped this?"
Fang thought hard. The High Mother was not often given to seeking advice, so her words now were important. "We are all at fault. She has loved too much, and you have loved too little. And I, I have done both, for I have loved you too much and her too little. Oh, I have tried to love wisely, but love is not wise, nor can wisdom sway the heart when grief or fury is upon it. Remember, it was I who begged you to give her Serah."
"Serah…" The High Mother eyes grew distant, her mind drawn back to the days of Serah's birth and death. "I remember the words you spoke then. A sword without a sheath can be turned against its master. The sheath was lost and now, at last, the sword has turned against me."
"Yes, it would seem so. Lightning has never treasured titles or fine things. But in Serah, she found one who loved her for whom she was and not for her purpose, nor her skills and power. If Lightning had been penniless and poor, a mortal without a coin to her name, still Serah would have loved her." It was a powerful feeling, Fang thought, and one she had never known. Or perhaps she had, but she could never give voice to it now. "When she lost Serah, something inside Lightning was broken. And a sword once broken can be reforged, but it will never be the same again."
"The High Father knew of this weakness." The words were a hiss.
"Yes. We have underestimated him. He understood her best of all, and it was love he used against her: her love for Serah and her love for you. For she loved you, High Mother, more than anything, save Serah. Yet what did her love win her? More duty. More pain. She has made a foolish choice now – and I pray it has not doomed us – but she did not make it without reason."
"This wisdom comes too late." The High Mother grew quiet. "Go. I must think."
And so Fang went. But as she left, she met Caius.
"I pity you," he said.
Fang stiffened. He had voted from the High Mother, but his hesitation had been plain to her. The High Mother had charged him with the care of a priestess, Yeul, and the sorrow of her fate weighed heavily upon him. At his words, the air stirred, and the seconds grew longer until each moment lasted the lifetime of a man. But his expression did not waver. She would not attack him without cause, and he was skilled in skirting the very edges of her patience.
"What do you mean?"
"You look at Lightning, and all you can see is her grief. You think it defines her. When I look upon her, I see her wrath. It makes her glorious." Caius laughed, and the sound was soft and bitter. "Have you forgotten, Fang of the Heavens, what so many called her in the years before Serah came? They called her the Wrath of the High Mother, and the name was well earned. And now wrath has returned to her, but it is her own and no other's."
Fang looked closely at Caius then, for the truth of his nature had been bared at last. What a fool she'd been to hide upon her mountain for so long. Cocoon might shine brightly in the sky, but there was such darkness upon it.
"She is right to feel wrath," Fang said. "But I hope that it shall pass with time. Serah might have gone, but there are others who love her still. Perhaps one day, her heart shall be opened to them, for not even the Sword of the Heavens can walk the endless paths of eternity alone."
In the years that followed, and they were long years, made longer by the simmering dislike amongst the gods that had chosen separate sides, the High Father carried out his plan. Estates were carved out upon Cocoon, fine dwellings built in the fashion of the gods, and he brought the finest of mortals from Gran Pulse to live in them.
It was hard for Fang to hate him then. These mortals were the greatest of their race, old perhaps, but regal still in the dwindling of their days. There were veteran warriors, scholars of great wisdom, and others who had been deemed worthy. But what threatened to sway Fang's heart was the change in Lightning's duties. The High Father had changed the laws of Cocoon, and to Lightning was given the task of herald, the god sent forth to summon the worthy to a life of paradise and plenty.
Lightning's mood grew gentle, and it seemed as though she had earned some measure of peace again. The lesser gods carried the mortals to and from Cocoon, but it was Lightning who sought them out and delivered the good news. Slowly, the sharpness faded from her features, and she came to speak first with Aerith and then, finally, to Fang as though the old slights had been forgiven.
"Can you see now what the High Father desired?" Lightning asked one day as she led them through the midst of all the mortal homes. All around them, the old folk, who had done much to deserve this blessing, walked the streets in wonder, their needs attended to by loyal spirits. There were smiles upon their faces, and the weight of their years seemed lighter. "They have earned this. Surely, you can see that."
And Fang could not disagree. Some of her Yun had been chosen, and though she loved the hardiness of her people, she loved also the sight of old heroes at rest, their weary bones spared the cruel cold of the mountains. And above all things, she loved the sight of Lightning's smile, fragile and tentative though it was. The other goddess walked often amongst the mortals, and Fang knew she was imagining what might have been if Serah or Averia had been afforded such comfort. And though the High Father's apparent kindness still did not sit right with her, Fang could not bring herself to take the smile from Lightning's face.
Lightning spoke again. "I once told Serah that lightning could only ever destroy. Yet now, I can do more. I can bring peace and hope, where once I could only bring pain and death. The dwindling of their years will not be as Serah's was. There will be no harsh summers here, no lean winters. And when the fires are lit, and their ashes are scattered to the winds, there will be no mourning, only joy at a life well lived and ended in dignity."
How could Fang object when the High Father's schemes had brought Lightning such happiness. Yet she saw her unease mirrored upon Aerith's face. Fang was no frequent visitor to Cocoon, but something about it had changed. Perhaps it was the High Father's power, for he had rarely shown it until recently. She spoke of her concerns to the High Mother, but her attention had been drawn elsewhere. The titan children of Pulse had stirred again, and with Lightning devoted to new duties, it fell to others to put them down.
Yet for the most part, Fang had only vague suspicions. And then the High Father began his pursuit of Aerith. The other goddess had come into the fullness of her power, and the High Father sought to sway her to his cause. To be sure, Aerith was flattered, but she was unsettled also. The High Father had never shown such interest in her before.
Fang and Aerith met in secret deep within her forest, a domain that no other god could enter without her knowledge.
"Why does he pursue you?" Fang asked.
"He speaks well," Aerith said. "And were I not already suspicious, he might have won me over already. He asks of my memories, of what I remember before I was found."
"But to what purpose?"
"You know what I am. I was not created by the High Mother and High Father as the other gods were. I was born of Pulse, and there are secrets in my blood that even I do not know."
"Pulse slumbers, Aerith, though his children might wake from time to time. The High Father has no need for your secrets – he has power enough."
"There you are wrong." Aerith paused, unsure. "Do you know of the Cetra?" Fang nodded. They were Aerith's children, created with her power. They were not men or gods, but something in between. "I felt something when I created them, something the High Father has sought for a very long time."
"What was it?" Fang leaned forward, drawn into the deepening green of Aerith's eyes.
"The chaos." Aerith hissed the words. "It is there – it has always been there. You cannot feel it, but I have known it all my life though I have only recently learned what it was. It lurks in the heart of every mortal. The High Mother crafted your soul in her image, but it was chaos that crafted the mortal soul, and it is chaos that sustains it. You know, as I do, that the High Mother and High Father did not create mortals. If they had, they could have restored Serah's godhood or conferred divinity upon their chosen. The chaos, Fang, is beyond them. It is something they can perceive but they cannot control it. It is the power that drives the cycle of life and death, the tide that drags all mortal souls through all the endless ages of the world."
"How can you know this for certain?" Fang was gifted in the arts of war, but Aerith had always looked elsewhere. The secret of creation – of life and death – that was her domain.
"I told you. I felt it. When I first created the Cetra, I looked to mortals and the gods for inspiration. They are my children, Fang, crafted of my power. But I could not give them souls, not as you and I have, nor could I them give souls as mortals have. They are children of the land, much like the titans we have faced. But in my search for a way to give them life, I came upon the chaos, if only for a moment. It is powerful, Fang, greater than even the High Mother and High Father. And amidst it, I saw something. A door."
A chill stole through Fang's heart. A dark memory had returned to her: a door standing at the centre of all of Creation, a door that was everywhere and nowhere at once. It was not her memory, but the High Mother's, an imprint left upon Fang's soul when the High Mother had created her. "That door… where does it lead?"
"I do not know. But ask yourself: who created the High Mother, the High Father, and Pulse? They are powerful, but they are not all powerful. Perhaps there is someone greater. That door… I cannot be certain, but I believe it leads somewhere, to a place where gods were never meant to go. Only mortals were meant for what lies beyond, for chaos flows within them and they cannot shape the world as we do. Serah became mortal by tearing out that part of her that was divine and plunging into the chaos. That is why her mortality cannot be undone – it was granted by a power that not even the High Mother may command."
"What you speak of is heresy." The laws of Cocoon were clear on this matter. The High Mother and High Father were supreme amongst the gods, the mightiest beings in all of Creation.
"Yet I speak truly. I would not lie to you."
Fang was glad they were hidden in Aerith's domain. "If you know of this door, then I am certain the High Mother knows of it also. She must be warned if the High Father seeks to reach it. Whatever power it might hold, I would not trust it in his hand – not when he has hidden his true purpose from us, and from Lightning most of all." Perhaps Lightning would despise her for this, but she would gladly bear Lightning's hatred if it meant the other goddess would not be used poorly once again.
"Be careful then. This secret was kept for a reason. If the High Mother has not already told you this, then she does not wish for you to know."
Fang nodded, but then she startled. The High Mother was calling for her, and it was a desperate call indeed. "Aerith, stay here."
And then Fang was soaring back to Cocoon as swiftly as the winds could carry her. She arrived in a whirlwind, tossing aside rubble and debris. Her heart froze. The High Mother's palace lay in ruins, and her retinue of lesser goddesses lay slain.
"What is going on here?" The ground beneath her shook, and a titanic explosion cracked the pinnacle of the sky. The clouds dissolved in flame. Scores of her lesser kin fell to lie broken and dead upon the streets. Around her, the ornate buildings and thoroughfares of Cocoon shattered, a wave of silent force sweeping past like a hurricane. As she reeled, more gods appeared, and drawing their weapons, they darted forward.
"Stay your hand!" she barked. But the other god would not stop, and she was forced to call upon her spear. She drove the weapon into his gut and hurled him aside. Another attacked from behind, and there was a great roar as the space around him bent and twisted and a thousand years passed in the blink of an eye. He fell.
"Caius!" Fang cried.
The other god limped, his face streaked with soot and blood. In one arm, he held his priestess, and beside him, refusing to accept aid she clearly needed, was the High Mother. Her robes were torn, and the aura of blinding light about her had dimmed. To her horror, Fang realised the High Mother was bleeding. Nothing could wound the High Mother – nothing except the High Father.
"What has happened here?"
In answer, there was a crack of thunder and a bolt of lightning raced down to shatter the ground before them. Lightning had arrived. Her red cloak was torn in many places, and the gleaming crystal of her armour shone like a ruby from all the blood upon it. The Sword of Gathering Storms had been drawn, and the crackle of its edge was a howl torn from Fang's nightmares.
"The High Mother attacked the High Father." Lightning strode forward. "And half of Cocoon lies in ashes because of her. Regardless of her station, she will be brought to justice."
Fang looked from the High Mother to Lightning. There was more to this, there had to be. But now was not the time for talk. Words would not stay Lightning's hand, not when her rage had stained the clouds black and streaked them with lightning. Worse, Fang could sense more of the gods loyal to the High Father arriving. They would be outnumbered soon, and Lightning was trouble enough alone.
"Go, Caius," Fang said. "Take the High Mother. Hide yourselves, and seek me out later."
Caius went, and the High Mother vanished with him.
Rain had begun to fall, and Fang was reminded of another time Lightning had raised her sword against her. But there was no grief upon her friend's face, only anger and hurt. One step became two became three, and they stood so close they could almost touch.
"That was unwise. She almost killed the High Father, Fang."
"Then she must have had good reason. Cruel she may, at times, but never senseless. Never without reason."
"What reason could she have?" Lightning drove her sword into the ground point first, and the stone beneath them glowed white-hot then melted into glass. "There can be no excusing this treachery. For the love I once bore you, and the love I still bear, I ask you to stand aside."
"I will not." Fang shook her head. "Were you there when she struck? And I can see in your eyes, you do not think of justice. You think of death. At least speak to her."
"The evidence was clear. I saw the wounds myself." Lightning tore her sword from the ground. "I will ask once more: stand aside."
Fang lifted her spear. "I do not know what lies the High Father has told you, but there is more to this than what you have seen."
"And why should I trust her over him? What has she done to earn my trust? I served her so well and was rewarded so poorly. Look around you, Fang. How many mortals are dead because of her? She gave no thought to them when she tried to strike the High Father down. My duty is clear. The High Mother has become an enemy of Cocoon."
"I will not stand aside."
"Then you leave me no choice."
There was silence then, and stillness, broken only by the rustle of the rain. They looked into each other's eyes, and Fang wondered how it had ever come to this. Where had the good days gone? Those distant days when she and Lightning had been close, and Serah and Aerith had wrought mischief upon their fellow gods. Fang would have given anything to have them back, but they were gone.
Lightning surged forward, and her sword fell with all the weight of a mountain. Fang caught the blow upon her spear, and the divine metal of the weapon shuddered beneath the force of the blow. At the last moment, she twisted, and Lightning's sword slid off her spear to carve a gash into the earth. In the same motion, Fang drove her spear up toward Lightning's side. The strike could have pierced the greatest of walls upon Gran Pulse, but Lightning caught it with one hand.
Fang's eyes widened. She'd forgotten how long it had been since they'd fought without reservation. Lightning had grown stronger, and she possessed Serah's powers as well. The pink haired goddess yanked Fang forward then hurled her up into the sky. Lightning followed a heartbeat later, and they clashed again and again, spinning end over end through the air as their weapons met in a thunderous staccato. Fang flicked her wrist, and her spear became a vast whip. She wrapped the weapon around Lightning and threw her back at Cocoon. The other goddess crashed through one temple after another, righted herself, and then sent a bolt of sizzling electricity up into the sky at Fang. Fang darted around the blast and replied with a wind sharp enough to cut through rock.
Lightning stood firm even as Fang's wind sliced through the stone around her and ripped a gash a mile long upon the surface of Cocoon. Thunder boomed and Lightning shot upward with a speed no other god could hope to match. Fang was caught in the middle of a divine storm, forced back as Lightning fought with greater and greater ferocity and power. One blow slipped through and then another, and Fang fled higher into the sky. She needed time to think, to gather her thoughts. More importantly, she needed to ensure that Caius and the High Mother had escaped. Fast as they were, Lightning might still catch them if she left now.
That left her with but two choices – and she was not yet ready to kill the dearest friend she had.
She dismissed her spear and called for another. It was not the God-Slaying Spear, but it was close. It was Gungnir, the All Piercing Spear that no shield or armour could withstand. The weapon fit perfectly in her hands, and Lightning stopped in the sky below.
"Do not make me throw this," Fang said.
Lightning did not give her a choice. She raised her sword and called to the storm around them. Fang threw her weapon. Gungnir flew faster than a thought, and the clouds around them parted, pierced even from afar. But Lightning was faster still. The unbreakable edge of the Sword of Gathering Storms caught the point of the All Piercing Spear, and the sky cracked. The shockwave tossed Fang back, and the storm died, blown apart by the force of the collision.
Yet when she looked down, Lightning still stood. The other goddess had done the impossible: she had deflected a spear as fast as thought itself. And in her sword's unbreakable edge, Lightning had found the one thing she possessed that could withstand the point of Gungnir.
"You still have one weapon stronger than that." Lightning glanced down to watch Gungnir fall to earth. Where it landed, it carved out a lake. "Call upon it now."
Fang shook her head. "No. The weapon you speak of was not meant for you. It was not meant to kill the one I hold dearest in my heart." She had bought enough time now for Caius and the High Mother. "I pray you find reason before I am forced to call upon that weapon." Then she fled, vanishing on the wind.
And Lightning let her go.
Almost a full day had passed before Caius and the High Mother came to Fang's mountain. However, she had not waited alone. Tales of the battle upon Cocoon had come to her from other gods still loyal to the High Mother, and many had sought shelter amongst the towering peaks of her domain.
"What happened up there?" Fang asked. "Did Lightning speak truly? Did you attack the High Father?"
"In that, Lightning spoke truly." The High Mother still looked weary. "I did strike the High Father, but not without reason. I discovered his true purpose, and I could not allow him to succeed."
Fang recalled Aerith's words, and the chill upon her soul grew even colder. "He is looking for a door."
"How did you know that?"
"He sought to win Aerith over, and she told me of her concerns. But she could not tell me exactly what this door was. Only you perhaps, and the High Father, know its true nature. Now is the time to share that knowledge."
"It is no mere door that he seeks." The High Mother's voice grew soft, and the sorrow in it was of an ancient kind, long buried but now unearthed. "It is the Door. It exists in a place beyond the mortal world, beyond even the reach of the gods and the glittering spires of Cocoon. The Door lies in the Realm of the Dead, a place where all mortal souls must go, but where no gods can walk. It leads to the one who created Pulse, the High Father, and me. It leads to the Creator, and it is the embodiment of his power."
"You never spoke of this before." Fang listened intently and so too did Caius.
"There was no point. Pulse has slumbered for countless ages, and neither the High Father nor I can even remember the Creator. All I have – all he has – is the shadow of a memory, the image of the Door burned into our souls. The Creator sleeps beyond the Door, and his dreams are what shape the world. The only way to reach him is through the Door. It is the lock that keeps apart the Realm of the Living and the Realm of the Dead."
"But every lock has a key," Caius said. "That is what the High Father seeks, is it not?"
"Yes. A key. The ultimate key."
"How could he make it?" The shards of a plan were coming together in Fang's mind, and she prayed her suspicions proved false. What she imagined was a horror beyond description.
"We sit upon an ocean of a chaos, a small, insignificant island of calm. No god can control the chaos, but it has been part of the mortal soul for as long as I can remember. It is why their prayers strengthen us – their devotion gives form to the chaos within their hearts, it gives us a power we can use. Only chaos can open the Door. The High Father means to use mortal souls to forge the key. But the ones he has in his possession – those loyal to him and kept upon Cocoon – are not enough. He must seek out the Lifestream, the river of souls that serves as the lifeblood of Pulse. It is there that the souls of the dead return to the Realm of the Living to be reborn."
"That is why he sought out Aerith," Fang said. "That is why you had me watch over her for so many years. You knew what she was, and you knew what she might one day be capable of."
"Yes, and we are fortunate that she has refused him. But I misjudged him. He does not need her anymore. He has found another way to make the key. Once he has enough souls, he will open the Door."
"He could awaken the Creator if he wished. But he will not. He will let the Creator slumber and seize hold of his powers. Then the High Father will finally be strong enough to throw back the tide of fate and conquer the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Nothing will be beyond his reach."
"And the cost?" Caius murmured. "What happens to the souls used to create the key?"
"They are lost forever."
"A number beyond counting."
Fang growled. "Then we must tell Lightning. She will see reason –"
"She shall not believe us," the High Mother said. Her words were a bitter thing, made bitterer by their truth. "The High Father had turned her heart against us, and he has hidden all sign of what he plans. Even if we confronted him, he would conceal his designs. But we are not without hope. There is still Cocoon."
"He needs Cocoon?"
"The Creator dreamed Cocoon into being, and the High Father and I shaped. Some fragment of his power still remains, trapped within its gleaming crystal. The High Father will use that shard of power to make the key, to give it a physical form. But first, he must bring Cocoon to the Lifestream so that it may absorb the souls he needs. Cocoon must be destroyed."
"Destroy Cocoon?" Caius shook his head. "This is madness far beyond anything I imagined. Yet what choice do we have? If you speak the truth, then it must be done."
Fang wished she could dispute the High Mother's words, but she could not. The words fit too well with what Aerith had told her. But worst of all, she knew the High Mother had spoken truly about Lightning. The other goddess had turned her heart from them. She would tolerate no insult to the High Father.
"I shall go and gather what forces I can." Fang took to the air. "If Cocoon is to fall, we shall need all the strength we can muster."
"Go then." The High Mother rose, and her weariness faded. In its place was iron resolve. "War has come, a war between gods."
X X X
In the days that followed, Fang gathered the gods still loyal to the High Mother. They held council atop her mountain, for the peaks were bound to her and would not betray their secrets to unfriendly eyes. Along with Caius, Fang was the most powerful of the gods that still remained to the High Mother.
It was a dragon that brought the news they feared, for Fang had set her dragons the task of watching Cocoon.
"The High Father is moving Cocoon." No longer did the High Mother go about in finery. Instead, she had donned the raiment of battle: crystal armour that blazed like the sun and shimmered like the moon. But even that was only for appearances. Like the High Father, she was not bound to one shape, and she would reveal her true form only when battle demanded it. "I was right about his plans."
"Then he shall know that we are coming. He shall be prepared."
"And he is growing stronger. He has brought many more mortals to Cocoon and of the prisoners he has taken only a few remain."
Fang's jaw tightened. She knew well that many of the gods friendly to the High Mother had been imprisoned, but she had not worried too much over their fate. Lightning's adherence to duty was still firm, which meant she would not slay them unless she had to. The law, as it had been, was clear: mere association with an enemy was not grounds enough for execution. Imprisonment alone would suffice. "What has he done now?"
"The High Father and I created all of you save for only a few like Aerith. We know your souls, and they were crafted in our image. What we gave, we can take away. That is, we could consume you as a mortal consumes food for sustenance. But the stronger the god, the more difficult this would be. It is no coincidence that the gods I can no longer feel are amongst the lesser of our kind."
"If he is fuelling his strength in such a manner, then our time grows shorter still. We must launch our attack while there is still hope of victory. He brings Cocoon north. Why?"
"The Lifestream flows through all of Gran Pulse. But as with the blood of a mortal, there are places where it is closer to the surface. In the north, hidden far from mortal eyes and the gaze of the gods, lies a place where the Lifestream flows strongly but close to the surface. There, he can forge the key."
"Then we must go there to meet him with all the forces we have gathered."
"Gods alone can fight this battle and your dragons too, perhaps. But it is no place for mortals. Their presence would only aid the High father's cause. Send word to all those still loyal. The day of our attack draws near."
Time was growing short. A great power was building in the north, a power greater than Fang had ever felt. All over the world, the skies darkened, and a dread silence fell upon the land. The home of the gods could not be taken by surprise, so their plan of attack was simple: assail Cocoon with all their might.
But the High Father had not left his plans to chance. He had called to him an army of gods and an army of mortals as well, which he arrayed upon the ground around Cocoon. They would serve as both defence and sacrifice. The spirits and gods on the High Mother's side did not fight alone either. Aerith had marched north with all her Cetra, and with her she had brought all the beasts of the wild and lonely woods. Then there were the dragons, which had given Fang their allegiance.
"Your orders are simple," the High Mother said. Her power carried her words clearly to all those who served her. "We must bring down Cocoon. Fight hard and fight well. Failure shall mean the end of us all and all the mortals we have watched over for so many years."
A great cheer went up, for the High Mother was dazzling in her strength and glory. Then she went in secret amongst the greater gods. Each of them was told to seek out one of the greater gods who served the High Father. Their task was to face them on the field of battle and slay them if required. To Fang was given the hardest task of all: to stop Lightning, the mightiest of the High Father champions.
"I would not give you this duty if there was another who could perform it," the High Mother said. "But Caius has a task of his own that only he can carry out."
"I understand." And Fang did, though she wished she did not. No one knew Lightning as well as she, and none had faced Lightning's sword so often. Fang's love had given her wisdom when it came to Lightning's powers, and now she would use that wisdom to lay her low. Besides, there were precious few amongst the High Mother's followers who could compare to Lightning in strength.
Yet Fang had doubts that would not leave her. Even if she possessed the power to kill Lightning – and that was no certain thing – she did not know if she could bring herself to do it. At the very least, however, she should be able to keep Lightning from aiding the High Father when the High Mother went against him.
With their course decided, the forces of the High Mother set out. They soared through the sky, the gods aglitter in their divine armour. Around them flew Bahamut and his kin, the dragons of the mountains. Of all creatures, dragons were the closest to the gods in power. And there were so many of them that day that their shadows cast the land beneath them into early twilight, and the gleam of their scales in the sun made it seem as though a bank of stars was sweeping through the sky.
But even so, Fang could not be certain of their victory. And she was right to worry.
No sooner had they laid eyes upon Cocoon, the home of the gods adrift above the frozen wastes of the north, than she saw a battle unfold on the ground ahead. The army of mortals that the High Father had gathered was locked in dire struggle with the Cetra and their beastly allies.
It was grim fighting. The Cetra were stronger and faster than any mortal, blessed by Aerith herself. They fought with the sword, the spear, and the bow, and the least of their number was worth ten mortals. As the front ranks held firm against the tide, those behind let loose a cloud of arrows. Yet the mortals did not break beneath the withering rain of steel, nor did they falter in the face of the Cetra's skill at arms. The High Father had promised them great things, and they fought now with the strength that could only come from unwavering devotion to a cause.
But over that battle was another far worse. Aerith stood alone in the sky, her pink robes aflutter in the breeze, the green of her eyes so bright that it was almost blinding. Against her stood Jenova, the Mother of Corruption. The mad goddess had sworn fealty of a sort to the High Father, and the air was thick with the stench of her power.
Fang had faced Jenova before, and she was no easy foe. Her power was corruption, the ability to taint and ruin all that she touched. With rotting wings and eyes like freshly spilt blood, Jenova was a nightmare come to life, a curse upon gods and mortals alike.
"Leave her to Aerith," the High Mother ordered. "Our own battle lies ahead."
And from Cocoon came hundreds of lesser gods and spirits, the vassals of the High Father and his followers. Behind them, remaining in firm position around Cocoon, were the greater gods, those that Fang and her kin would have to face.
"Fight!" the High Mother roared. "Give no quarter!"
The two sides met in the skies over the north, and it was a fell meeting indeed. Divine steel cleaved through godly flesh, and the cries and yells of the wounded and the dying filled the air. Gods tumbled from the clouds and broke upon the icy ground below. Elsewhere, the dragons of the mountains gave voice to their own rage, and the flare of divine power was joined by the searing heat of dragon fire.
In the midst of the carnage, Fang saw Bahamut rip a lesser god in two before swallowing another. A blast of his flame sent a host of spirits reeling to break upon a distant mountainside. Those in his path fled, fear overcoming their pride, for only a greater god could stand against Bahamut and win. He was the oldest of dragons and the mightiest by far.
For her part, Fang fought to clear a path to Cocoon. She took no pleasure in killing those she had once called friends, and she took care to strike swiftly and accurately. If she could not spare them death, she could at least spare them undue suffering. But her eyes were on the skies above, waiting for Lightning to show herself.
Yet she could not stop herself from turning to watch as Aerith fell, hurled down into the ice by a wave of dark, fetid shadow. The younger goddess screamed as Jenova's power sought to rot the flesh from her bones. Around her, the ground withered and blackened, and nothing would ever grow there again. But Aerith was no helpless lamb being led to the slaughter. At her cry, the earth tore and a forest rose to strike down her enemy. A titan of roots, wood, and leaves took shape, and it seized hold of Jenova in one colossal fist.
Down the titan drove the mad goddess, down into the dirt and the ice with such force that the glacier they fought upon cracked in two. Jenova's corrupting touch ate away at the wood, but Aerith's power matched it, restoring life to the tainted areas. Again and again, the titan hammered Jenova into the ice until at last a burst of Jenova's power ripped it apart. Aerith howled, a wordless cry of defiance on her lips, and the ground gave way again. Vines raced toward Jenova, each as sharp and hard as a blade wrought of divine steel.
But Jenova had not survived the High Mother displeasure for so long only to fall to Aerith. She rose up into the sky, the sun's light shying away from her as she reached toward the vault of the heavens. A vast shadow fell over the land. Fang looked up. This was the pinnacle of Jenova's might – a calamity from the skies called down to smash her enemies. It was a great stone the size of a city wreathed in black fire and spewing poison.
The High Mother moved to intercept Jenova's attack, but there was a sound like a million waves crashing into the shore. The High Father had joined the battle. The pair met in a storm of light and heat unlike anything Fang had ever known. Then they vanished, a massive pillar of raw force rising up into the sky behind them as their battle took them ever higher above Cocoon.
"Die!" Jenova snarled. "You and all your children!"
And so the calamity from the skies fell, a shadow so vast the whole battlefield was left in darkness. The Cetra below cried out in horror, for there was no time for them to run or flee. Instead, they could only stand and await their death. Even Fang, with all her strength, was not sure if she could stop it. But Aerith did not waver. Instead, she reached out for the doom headed toward her.
Fang had always wondered at Aerith's strength, but now, at last, she took its true measure. The shattered titan rose again, and around its bulk Aerith wove armour wrought of the land itself. Earth and ice fused to wood and vine, and the giant stretched out its hands to catch the calamity.
And for a second, the calamity stopped, held aloft by a giant as vast a mountain. Then it moved again, driven by a surge of Jenova's power. The titan's arms cracked, and the calamity drove down to strike the earth where it exploded like a star wrought of shadows. When the light faded, Fang sought desperately for some sign Aerith.
The other goddess still lived, for her giant had taken the worst of the blast. Even so, a vast crater had been torn in the earth, and all those within it were dead. But those further away had been spared, though they too had been tainted by the power of Jenova. Aerith howled in grief, and tears of rage and fury slipped down her cheeks. Blood stained her robes, but she rose into the sky once more, and the look upon her face was terrible to behold. There would be no quarter given now, no thought of mercy. Aerith threw herself at Jenova, and the pair hurtled west, their powers warring endless against one another.
Fang turned once more to Cocoon, and the High Mother and High Father appeared before her.
"By all the gods…" She had glimpsed their true forms before, but she had never seen them worn so openly.
The High Father was a monster, a thousand faces swirling in the sky, all sleek metal and gleaming death. From a thousand tortured throats poured an endless litany of praise and glory. He seemed to span the whole horizon, to cover the world itself in his shadow. Then reality cracked as his power sheared creation apart in a bid to wipe out his enemy.
But the High Mother met his attack head on, and she looked barely more human than he did. She was a giant of light and thunder, the words of her gospel carved into the eyes and hearts of all who looked upon her. Divine fire seared the air, and the winds sang of her greatness. This was less a battle, and more a contest of wills, the two greatest of the gods reshaping reality with every blow they struck.
And then, at last, Fang spied Lightning. A dozen lesser gods rushed toward her only to fall as she cut them down with all the ease of a lion amongst lambs. Fang caught Lightning's gaze and held it, and she knew then there was no turning back from this. Lightning stood before Cocoon, the High Father's last line of defence. Divine blood stained her armour and dripped from her sword. With a flick of her wrist, she tore off her cloak and let the wind carry it away. Wordlessly, the other gods nearby fled. This battle was between the two of them.
The time for words had long passed, but Fang could not keep from trying. And so she spoke of all the High Mother and Aerith had told her. How she wished her words could reach Lightning.
"You speak of dark things," Lightning said. "Yet the only power I have felt upon Cocoon belongs to the High Father. Perhaps what you say is true. Perhaps a door must be opened, and a key must be forged. But his plans are not as you think. He has confided his purpose in me. He means to study the Lifestream, to learn the ebb and flows of its souls. That is all."
"Then he has lied to you, or else you see and hear only what you wish to."
"The High Mother was no better."
"What would Serah think if she saw you now? Do you think she would welcome the sacrifice of so many for her sake?"
"Speak not of Serah," Lightning. "And worry not for her. Instead, worry more for yourself."
And Fang's heart broke, for she knew then that no words would ever be enough. The battle would be joined. "Then that is your choice."
"It is the only choice that I can make."
"So you say." Fang lifted one hand and called for the God-Slaying Spear, the one weapon she possessed that had never failed to kill its enemy. Out of all the weapons forged in the heavens and the earth, her spear alone had been crafted for the sole purpose of killing gods. It appeared in her hands, a shaft of blood and shadow. "I beg you, Lightning, do not do this. Please."
"Had you begged for Serah's life as you now beg, perhaps we would not be here." The bitterness in Lightning's tone was beyond measure, and she lifted her sword. "You have spoken, and now I shall give my reply with this." Then her sword shattered, and in its place was a blade of purest lightning. It was the force of every storm that had even been and every storm that would ever be gathered into a single weapon, her full power unleashed at last.
A single tear trickled down Fang's cheek. "Then our choices have been made. Or perhaps they were made long ago."
And then they fought.
It was like no battle Fang had ever known. Lightning was a storm come alive. Already fast, she seemed now to vanish from Fang's sight, and her blows came from all directions and with a force that seemed impossible to hold back. Fang weathered the assault as best she could, looking always for the one moment she needed to strike with the spear that had never known defeat.
But Lightning was wise to the nature of Fang's weapon, and the moment Fang desired would not come. Several times, Fang thrust. But Lightning would not be hit, and her sword left many a gash upon the goddess of the wind. Higher they went, spiralling up beyond Cocoon and into the clouds. A storm grew around them, whipped into frenzy by the lightning and the wind. This was a battle long in the making, but Fang had never thought it would be like this.
Lightning snarled, and her next blows sent Fang reeling through the sky. A jagged fork of electricity tore the clouds, and Fang dove low to avoid it. Then she rose, and the winds she threw in reply were enough to tear down cities and strip a mountainside. But Lightning cleaved apart those winds and streak forward to engage Fang again.
Fang drifted back and swept her spear out. The weapon lengthened to a thousand times its usual measure, and she bound it around Lightning and tossed the other goddess into a mountain. The top of the mountain broke, a pillar of dust and smoke rising from the ruin of its peak, and Fang returned her spear to its normal length and made to throw it. But the dust parted, and Lightning let loose a bolt of electricity so great the shadow of it melted the remains of the mountaintop around her.
Once again, Fang dodged death by a hair's breadth. Lightning wielded not only her own power, but Serah's also, and Serah had been strong. Fang tumbled back, singed, and swept her spear out again. But this time, Lightning caught it, and though its edge shredded and cut her hands, she held firm and yanked Fang out of the sky. Fang jerked to the side and Lightning's killing thrust went wide, but then Lightning grabbed her by the throat and threw her down the mountain. The goddess of the wind left a trail of ruin in her wake until she struck the base of the mountain and carved out a valley.
"Stop this madness!" Fang cried, as she stumbled to her feet and sought to fend off Lightning. "It is not too late. See reason!"
"I have." Lightning shoved Fang back and then scowled as a thrust of the God-Slaying Spear shattered the armour upon her shoulder and nicked the flesh beneath. She drove the flat of her sword into Fang's side and knocked her back into the sky with a crunching blow of her fist. Fang raced upward, and Lightning followed, striking again and again. But somehow, Fang forced distance between them, and they stood far apart in the stormy skies.
Fang had not wished to do this, but now she had no choice. Lightning was too strong to restrain. She lifted the spear and holding it aloft, she poured her power into it. A nest of crimson shadows sprang to life about the tip, and all along its length, in every language there would ever be, the word for death was written in blood and fire. Strength enough to shatter a world filled the weapon, and roaring, she threw it. Lightning did not bother to move – the God-Slaying Spear was beyond dodging. Instead, she met it head on as she had met Gungnir.
There was a sound like the ending of the world, for not even the peerless edge of the Sword of Gathering Storms could not turn aside the God-Slaying Spear, not completely. The deadly thorn caught Lightning in the left shoulder and shattered the armour there. Then it pierced right through her flesh and struck Cocoon, which lay behind her. The impact ripped open the crystal star that served as the home of the gods and laid bare its heart. There, exposed at last, was a pulsing, seething ocean of power. And within it, Fang could sense the pain of countless mortal souls caught in the High Father's power. No wonder Lightning had never felt darkness upon Cocoon. For who would have questioned the presence of the High Father's power so deep within the home of the gods?
"Do you see now?" Fang asked as she called her spear back to her. "He has lied to you! He has hidden his treachery in the one place you would never think to look. He has used you!"
Horror filled Lightning, and Fang was sick to her soul at having put it there. Before their eyes, the sea of power inside Cocoon shuddered and reached down to devour the souls of the mortals upon the battlefield below them. Lightning shook her head in denial, and a ragged cry burst from her lips. Then there was a crack that split the sky as the High Mother and High Father appeared once more.
"You lied to me!" Lightning roared as the High Father settled into place beside her.
"Perhaps," he said. "But know this: only through the sacrifice of the many can you save the few. What are the souls of mere mortals worth beside the soul of your sister? That much I did not lie about – you can have her again." He laughed. "Behold. It begins."
He gestured, and the power within Cocoon thundered down into the crater Jenova had made. It ripped open the earth and there, in plain view, was the Lifestream, a glowing river of souls more beautiful yet terrible than anything Fang had ever seen. The High Father gestured again, and the Lifestream rose upward and poured into Cocoon. The home of the gods quivered. Deep within the storm of souls gathering at its heart, a key the size of a sword began to form.
"Do you see?" The High Father wrapped his power around Lightning. "This is the freedom I spoke of. With that key, I can open the Door. I shall find the Creator and seize his power for my own. And with that power, I shall rewrite the laws of fate and destiny. Why should the world be nothing more than the dreams of a slumbering god? I shall bring a new order, a better order. And you shall have your sister, Lightning, and you shall never lose her again."
Fang saw Lightning waver. The horror of the High Father's deeds was balanced now against the offer of Serah's safety.
"Think!" Fang cried. "Is this what Serah would want?"
And then many things happened at once. The High Mother lashed out with a river of power so great it split the land beneath them and fractured the heavens. But almost at the same time, the High Father struck out as well. Their powers met, and time and space were torn asunder. Fang went flying, tossed aside like a leaf before a hurricane. She steadied herself, and seeing the High Father locked in mortal struggle against the High Mother, she lifted her spear again and filled it with her power. Could it kill him? There was no way of knowing, but it might still turn the tide in the High Mother's favour.
She threw the spear.
But it was not the High Father it struck.
For at the last moment, he realised the danger. There was no time for him to dodge or even properly defend. So instead, he shoved Lightning into the path of the weapon. Fang let loose a scream of anguish and horror as the spear caught Lighting full in the chest. This was no glancing blow like before. This was the spear striking with all its strength. It knocked Lightning back, and the explosion that followed was like a star of blood and shadows being born.
Then Lightning was falling, falling, falling down into the Lifestream.
And Fang could only watch, her soul broken by what she had done. She had thought herself ready to kill Lightning, but she was not. By all the gods, she was not.
"I wonder if she would have stopped me," the High Father said. "But now we shall never know." He forced the High Mother back. "I can feel your power dwindling, Fang of the Heavens. You cannot throw your spear again with that same force. But I have bound myself to Cocoon – my power grows with each moment, and soon the key will be complete. I have won, and you have lost."
X X X
"Shall you stay here?" Aerith asked. She too had felt the flash of the High Father's power from the west, and in its wake Fang had vanished from her senses. "I cannot leave so easily as you."
Lightning said not a word. Instead, her eyes went to the bedroom she shared with Serah. An age ago, she had made a choice. Now another choice loomed before her. Should she stay or should she go?
"Look after Serah."
Lightning lifted one hand and let the lightning carry her westward. Fang had almost killed her once, but her brush with death had also saved her. Now, she would return the favour. But it was strange. She could no longer sense Caius or the High Father.
She arrived upon the ruins of Oerba's eastern wall in a blaze of divine glory. Nearby, a priest cried out in awe, but she paid him no mind. Instead, she turned her gaze upon the soldiers of Cocoon, and they fled before the sight of her. To be sure of their retreat, she carved a great trench in the earth with her lightning.
The priest threw himself to the ground at her feet.
"Honoured goddess! You have come to us in the hour of our need."
"The gods once ordained that these walls would never fail. A god broke that promise, now it falls to another to uphold it." She watched the soldiers of Cocoon flee. "No more will come this night but that is all the aid I shall offer. Your battle on the morrow is your concern. I have learned at great cost that good seldom comes from the gods meddling in the affairs of mortals. My concern now is with the goddess that lies wounded in your temple."
The priest moved to speak, but she swept past him.
An age ago, she had walked through Oerba, so she knew where the temple was. All those she passed fell to their knees, but she did not pause or even look their way. Instead, she went straight to the temple. It stood tall above her, the stones ancient beyond reckoning, the statues of a hundred gods staring down at her, judging her, hating her.
There, in a place of prominence undeserved, was a statue of her as she had been in the Old Days. The guards at the door parted as she advanced, and she made her way to the inner sanctum where the priests had brought Fang. Even there, no one thought to bar her way. How could they? She was a goddess.
The doors burst open at her approach, and the stones beneath her feet shook with the full weight of her grief as, for the first time in an age, she laid eyes upon Fang. The goddess's wounds were still plain to see, and her furrowed brow gave some idea of what memories haunted her as she slumbered.
Without a word, Lightning knelt beside the altar where Fang slept. Her heart felt hollow. She reached out to wipe some of the blood from the other goddess's forehead only to stop halfway. After everything she had done, she had no right to touch her, not with hands that had drawn Fang's blood so many times.
So Lightning pulled away and rose to her feet. She would stand watch. Yet it was not long before the memories came to her, memories of the time she too had felt the High Father's wrath.
X X X
For the longest time, she fell.
And she burned.
The spear driven into her chest seared every fibre of her being. It torched her veins, burnt out every muscle. She had wondered how it would feel to die, and now she knew. The God-Slaying Spear had been forged for one purpose only, and not even she could stop what was happening now.
And then there was nothing. Was this oblivion? She had sent so many here, and yet she had never expected it to be so still and quiet and dark. It was almost peaceful – a calm she had not thought to feel again, not since Serah had died. Then there was light, soft and green like the glitter of sunlight off verdant fields. It filled her vision, brightening, changing, until it was no longer green but white, and then even that gave way. In its wake there was light and sound and colour and –
"I had not thought to meet you like this."
Lightning gasped and yanked the spear out of her chest. It clattered onto the grass beneath her feet. Grass? Her gaze flicked to the world around her. She stood in the middle of an endless field, the sky above her lit by both the sun and the moon together. Glittering lights danced through the air. Fireflies? Whatever they were, a host of them floated in the air in front of her. They had formed, quite roughly, into the shape of someone she knew very well.
But it was not merely Serah the goddess. No, the ever-shifting lights made it seem as though she was Serah the goddess, Serah the mortal, and even Averia all at once. The features had the same general look, yet the posture, the way she held herself had differed from life to life. And the voice… Lightning could not understand how those lights could make mimic her voice. But they did, and she could not turn away, especially when the fine, precise pronunciation of her sister took on the rougher accent that Averia had carried until the day she died.
"Serah, I –"
Serah put one finger to Lightning's lips. Lightning nearly wept. She had done the same thing many times during Serah's youth to try and quiet the younger goddess. It had rarely worked. "It is all right."
"Am I dead?" Lightning looked down at her chest. The hole there oozed blood. "I am dead then. I must be."
"Not yet. Not quite." Serah took Lightning's hands in hers. Lightning shivered. Serah felt so real. "You are in the Lifestream. All mortal souls come here after passing through the Realm of the Dead. We sleep, for the most part, but now and then we awaken. And we are awake now. The High Father has already destroyed so many of us. The key is nearly complete. Then he will have power enough to change the cycle of life and death."
"Then he did not lie about that."
"Does that matter?" Serah smiled gently, sadly, and cupped Lightning's cheek. This time, Lightning did weep. "I cannot blame you, for you have missed me dearly, and you always did love so fiercely, if not always wisely. But I can feel the pain of those who have been lost to make the key – and many more must be lost before the key is done. Do you think that is what I would want? That I would so many innocents sacrificed for my sake?
"No. But living without you is so hard. The weight of it… is heavy, so heavy."
"There is nothing so heavy as the weight of destiny." Serah wiped Lightning's tears away. "You know, by now, what I want you to do. But what do you want to do?"
"I do not understand."
"You have always followed your duty. You have always upheld the laws of Cocoon."
"Because they were just."
"I ask you now to set aside your duty and to think beyond the laws written by the gods. What does your heart tell you? Beneath your rage, beneath your grief, is this the path you truly wish to take?"
"Here stands the choice before you. You can let the High Father succeed, or you can stop him."
And suddenly, Serah's voice was joined by the voices of countless others. It was the Lifestream, the river of souls. And it was speaking to Lightning. Images filled her mind, snatches of memory and thought. Thousands of lives unfolded before her: the past, present, and future of every mortal soul. The weight of it all pressed down upon her. It was the weight of their grief, their sorrow, and their suffering. But it was also the weight of their love, their joy, and their hope.
She had never felt so humbled.
And now she knew what her decision would be. What was her grief and loss weighed against so many? How could she ever look Serah in the eye again if she turned her back on such suffering? Perhaps it was heavy, but she was the goddess Lightning. She would do as she had always done – she would do what had to be done.
Serah appeared to her again. A gentle smile graced her lips. "Allow me to give you a parting gift." She placed her hands against Lightning's wound, and the goddess shivered as the power of the Lifestream flowed through her. Every wound was healed, and her dwindling powers were restored. "It would be cruel to send you back without some hope of victory, and we – all of us here – have a vested interest in your success." She chuckled softly. "Take care, sister."
"Shall I ever see you again?"
Serah threw her arms about Lightning. "The sister I knew did not give way to tears so easily. But do not fear. Even if we part now, it is not forever. I shall find you again."
And then Serah was gone.
Lightning's eyes opened. She was on the shores of the Lifestream at the bottom of the crater. Her sword lay cold and dull in the dust, and Fang's spear lay nearby as well. Her gaze went to the sky. The High Mother and High Father were locked in desperate combat, yet it was clear that he was winning. Fang was nowhere to be seen, but Lightning could still feel her soul. She was only wounded then.
She stumbled to her feet. Serah had not lied. Her powers had been restored in full, and she would need them, at least for a little while. She went to the God-Slaying Spear and picked it up. The weapon hummed in her hands, but it did not reject her as it could have. Perhaps it sensed her purpose, or perhaps its mistress had never revoked Lightning's right to touch it.
Whatever it was, Lightning lifted the spear and filled it with her power. Once more the point grew sharp, and the shaft of the weapon proclaimed death in every language there would ever be. Her lips curled. She had never had much love for spears, but Fang had made certain she knew how to wield one. She was glad for those lessons now – and gladder for the friendship that had come with them.
With a growl, Lightning threw the spear, and it was a thorn of red and black streaking with impossible swiftness toward its target. But the High Father was no mere god. He caught the weapon, but in that instant his attention turned from the High Mother. She took full advantage and threw the full weight of her power into a blow that tore him down to the very fabric of his being.
Lightning saw at once that the High Mother would not be able to strike such a blow again – too much of her power was spent. But the High Father had power still, and now he rounded on the High Mother with murder in his heart. But he had not counted on Lightning. Gathering all her powers, she raced upward and drove her sword into the very centre of his being. All of her power was thrown into the strike, every ounce of will and every iota of strength. The High Father roared long and loud, for the High Mother's blow had weakened him enough to make this wound a deadly one.
"You fool!" he bellowed. His power had gone rampant, tearing the flesh from her bones and ripping the sky. Above them, Cocoon began to quiver. It had answered to the High Father alone, and now that he was mortally wounded, it was beyond anyone's control. "You have killed us all."
"Perhaps," Lightning replied. "But this is my choice."
"You shall not enjoy this victory." The High Father gestured one last time at Cocoon. "You shall all die with me."
And then Cocoon exploded. The home of the gods came apart in a blast so bright that the whole sky was lit as though filled by a hundred suns. The force of its destruction swept past the High Father and Lightning, the two who were closest to it. The last thing she felt was the High Mother's own power sweeping out, trying hopeless to contain the blast – a blast fuelled not only by the High Father's power, but by the power of the Lifestream as well.
And then there was nothing.
Nothing until Serah called out to her from the shrine.
X X X
Lightning looked at Fang. There was so much she did not know. She had no idea of what had happened after the High Father fell. The High Mother was gone – perhaps she had used too much of her power to restrain the blast. But what had happened to Caius and Fang in the years after? Nor did she know how the High Father had survived, or what he had promised Caius to win him over.
She wished for nothing more than the chance to live a life by Serah's side, to treasure her sister for however long the fates had given them. But if the High Father wished to try again, then she would stop him. Yet there was no High Mother this time to aid their cause, and she had so many regrets.
Tomorrow, a battle would be fought. She would let the mortals fight it. The Fall of Cocoon had taught her too well what happened when the gods meddled in mortal affairs. There was only one mortal that interested her, and even she had not been able to spare her from the vagaries of destiny.
Regret was a hideous thing, and it clawed at Lightning now. But she could wait. Serah was with Aerith, safe in her forest. Fang would awaken soon, and they would talk. She needed to know what had happened in the years of her slumber. She needed to know what Caius and the High Father planned.
If it came to it, neither she nor Fang were strong enough to face the High Father – never mind face him when he had Caius's aid – but so few of them remained. And there were words they had to speak, words that had waited far too long.
X X X
As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.
There is a phrase about getting a monkey off one's back. This chapter was my monkey, only instead of a monkey it was more of a five hundred pound, fire-breathing gorilla with an adamantium pickaxe. Yeah… that's a scary thought. In any case, this chapter should be reassuring to anyone who thought I had abandoned this story (I have not, nor do I intend to).
Rather than going into the reasons for the delay, let me instead move straight into a discussion of what actually happened in the chapter.
I had originally intended to include the battle scene that was hinted at in the previous chapter. However, I wasn't satisfied with the way it fit. In particular, I felt the story needed to provide more background with regards to the past otherwise too much of what Caius and the High Father were doing would appear to make no sense.
Setting the majority of this chapter in the past also allowed me to provide important details – details that have thus far not been provided. We are reaching the point in the story where Lightning is going to have some very important decisions to make (as are the other characters). Without knowledge of the past, their decisions would lack context. And context is important, for how else are readers to evaluate/empathise with a character's decisions.
And empathy is particularly important when it comes to Caius. He is not insane. He is not inflicting suffering simply for the sake of it. Instead, he has made a very deliberate choice to support the High Father, knowing full well what that support entails. There are things he wants, which only the High Father can give him, and Caius has judged the cost worth the reward. However, he isn't stupid – he has made plans of his own to ensure the High Father doesn't have things all his own way. Opening the chapter from Caius's view was a deliberate decision to try and provide the reader with a glimpse into his head.
The Fall of Cocoon is the shadow that has hung over this story since the early chapters, and finally I got around to telling all of you how it happened. Despite his considerable military might – might that is only matched by the High Mother – the High Father's true strength was his ability to understand others. The High Mother mocked all of the time he spent amongst mortals, but he learned firsthand from mortals how powerful manipulation can be.
The High Father's ability to manipulate others is showcased in his treatment of Lightning. He understands her almost perfectly. Apart from her love for Serah, she is driven by the need to see justice and fairness prevail – the High Mother made her that way. By appealing to all of those things, the High Father was able to turn Lightning's resentment toward the High Mother into outright rebellion.
Consider the High Father's speech. He speaks of high-minded things, such as justice, fairness, and honour, to try and appeal to the gods' sense of decency and nobility. He understands that emotion can be stronger than intellect. In contrast, the High Mother adopts a much more straightforward approach, one that casts her views in a far less sympathetic light.
It isn't a case of the High Mother being stupid. Rather it is a case of her thinking in a very different way. For countless ages she has ruled over the gods. Her word was law. Her gospel was the truth. The very thought of being overthrown or outmanoeuvred was as foreign an idea to her as the sun rising in the west. She can't imagine things changing because they never have before. Nor does she see the point in appealing to emotion. The laws of Cocoon clearly favour her position with regards to mortals – she is in the right. The High Father chose to fight their battle in an area where she had little experience and even less understanding. As she said, he has spent far more time amongst mortals than her. The gods, being immortal, do not change nearly as quickly as mortals who live considerably shorter lives.
The High Father's plan incorporates ideas from Final Fantasies VII, X, and XIII. In particular, the Door, the Realm of the Living, and the Realm of the Dead are all ideas adapted from the Final Fantasy XIII mythology. The idea of slumbering Creator, or Maker, is also adapted from Final Fantasy XIII. The Lifestream and Lightning's meeting with Serah are based on a combination of ideas modelled on elements of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. More astute readers will also notice the Kingdom Hearts reference present in the High Father's plan.
Now that we've gotten all of that out of the way, there's probably something else you're wondering: is the next chapter going to take this long to come out? I sincerely hope not. The delay in getting this chapter up has been one of the most galling and somewhat horrible experiences I've ever had as a writer. Not only have I disappointed all of you (the readers) but I have also disappointed myself. It is not a pleasant feeling, nor is it one I wish to subject myself to again. In any case, I'll simply have to do better in the future.
I've also received a number of questions as to what, if any, music I listen to while writing this story. I don't actually listen to music while writing. If I do listen to music, it is before I start writing. Likewise, if I want to read something to get into the mood, I'll read it before I start. My choices in reading/listening can be quiet odd. For example, when I was working on this chapter I read Tolkien's Children of Hurin and listened to Mumford and Son's I Will Wait, Avicii's Wake Me Up, and the Pacific Rim theme. Quite an odd mix, I'm sure.
I would also like to thank everyone who participated in The Last Huntress promotion. If you are interested in my original fiction, do check out the links in my profile. If you've enjoyed Whispers of the Gods, you're likely to enjoy The Last Huntress and its sequel, The Lord of Dark Waters. And speaking of my original fiction, I now have a preview of my upcoming fantasy short story The Burning Mountains available. Here is the blurb:
The Burning Mountains have belonged to dragons since the Old Days when gods still walked the earth. They are a place of fire and ruin where no man dares walk and no elf dares linger long. Only the strong can survive there and only the ruthless can prosper.
Amidst the smoke, the ash, and the flame, an exiled elven princess will meet an outcast dragon. Alone, they have little hope of survival. But together, they might do more than survive – they might conquer. For the dragon has a realm to claim and the princess has a realm to take back.
There are some lessons that only fire can teach and some wisdom that only a dragon can impart.
As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.